Since I don’t always have time to peruse the headlines every morning, I’ve set up a few Google Alerts to keep me informed of new articles, blogs, press releases, and videos related to my interests. My Friday mornings have become a luxury not only because I have much of the day devoted to writing, but because I can review the headlines relevant to my research. For instance, this morning, not only did I learn that Shaun Casey, director of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the U.S. State Department, will be speaking at Emory next week [colleagues in Atlanta, consider me jealous], but also that the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, held a rountable discussion on the role of female religious leaders in promoting religious freedom. The headlines, and this developing (and much more public) effort by the State Department to court religious figures and groups left me pondering the state of this field of research and its relationship to American Religious History.
The fact that religion has become a significant policy and diplomatic concern for the State Department and U.S. military, I think, places the field of American Religious History/Studies at an interesting historiographical moment. And here’s my wild assertion for the day: a field that has largely put Sidney Ahlstrom in its past is being confronted by his work in the present.
As I see it, Ahlstrom’s primary concern in A Religious History of the American People is to understand American religious pluralism. To do so, he provides a narrative in tension. On one hand, he presents a nation that possessed a diversity of traditions in its early years [let’s bracket for a moment the conversation about how accurate or successful he is at this] and, on the other, a nation increasing in diversity so rapidly as to call into question what precisely unifies it. Along the way–the long and scenic route, no doubt–he posits religious liberty paired with a concern for the public good as central to religion in America and, perhaps, democracy in America as well. Analysis of the argument itself as well as the following four decades of scholarship tell us that he gave preference to white, liberal Protestants as the arbiters and custodians of this impulse, leaving all other groups standing on the sidelines or as players waiting to be tapped to enter into a game where their role would be limited and they would be pressured to conform. After important and significant work in the correction of the idea that white, liberal Protestants are at the center of American religious history, the field seems to be returning to this idea, but with attention to its power in shaping conceptual frameworks and its susceptibility in being influenced by the secular things it claimed to challenge.
While our understanding of Ahlstrom, this thesis, and his evidence have changed–and here’s my assertion for the day–the “essence” he identified for American Religious History, for the United States as an imagined community a nation endures despite a robust historiography. The idea that America and/or American democracy is exceptional continues to be traced to this notion of a unique religious toleration, particularly a consensus about its basis in religious liberty + concern for the public good–a consensus that the State Department seems to be conflating with “real” religion. Despite numerous scholars showing the emptiness of this particular argument, the idea that America’s exceptional identity is its freedom of religion endures.
As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd pointed out this week in “Losing Faith in Faith-Based Outreach,” the internationalization of this notion of American identity and statecraft has dramatic effects:
As well intentioned as these efforts appear, they raise serious concerns about government’s relationship with religion. Such projects require the government to decide which groups count as religious and worthy of engagement. Here the state must choose among vying sects and authorities, privileging some at the expense of others. There may be no agreement within a particular religious tradition on who speaks authoritatively for that tradition, who is in and out of favor, which texts and practices represent the core of the tradition and so forth. For the government to decide which groups are in and out grants sanction to some theological understandings and practices over others.
Drawing upon, perhaps, Talal Asad (and even Heidi Klum), Shakman Hurd points to the implicit power dynamics of these initiatives. Besides the issue that the United States and others are investing resources in religious communities, there is the issue of how they are doing so. For instance, Hurd directs readers’ attention to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan to promote religious tolerance in which the military “has built religious schools and sponsored trips like the Voices of Religious Tolerance tour to Amman, Jordan, where influential Afghans toured mosques, parks and shopping malls to learn about life in a religiously tolerant country.”
It is efforts like these that seem likely to cause scholars of American religions to face Ahlstrom’s questions again, but from outside the academy rather than within it. An e.g. of Hugh Urban’s (and David Chidester’s) methodological approach to the study of religion, that “religion” is not “solely a product of scholars or academic institutions” but “an extremely complex historical process” occurring in the streets and, also to a significant degree, in government agencies.